How can the federal government be prevented from usurping powers that
the Constitution doesn’t grant to it? It’s an alarming
fact that few Americans ask this question anymore.
Our ultimate defense against the federal government is the right of
secession. Yes, most people assume that the Civil War settled that.
But superior force proves nothing. If there was a right of secession
before that war, it should be just as valid now. It wasn’t negated
because Northern munitions factories were more efficient than Southern
Among the Founding Fathers there was no doubt. The United States had
just seceded from the British Empire, exercising the right of the people
to “alter or abolish” — by force, if necessary — a
despotic government. The Declaration of Independence is the most famous
act of secession in our history, though modern rhetoric makes “secession” sound
somehow different from, and more sinister than, claiming independence.
The original 13 states formed a “Confederation,” under
which each state retained its “sovereignty, freedom, and independence.” The
Constitution didn’t change this; each sovereign state was free
to reject the Constitution. The new powers of the federal government
were “granted” and “delegated” by the states,
which implies that the states were prior and superior to the federal
Even in The Federalist, the brilliant propaganda papers for ratification
of the Constitution (largely written by Alexander Hamilton and James
Madison), the United States are constantly referred to as “the
Confederacy” and “a confederate republic,” as opposed
to a single “consolidated” or monolithic state. Members
of a “confederacy” are by definition free to withdraw from
Hamilton and Madison hoped secession would never happen, but they
never denied that it was a right and a practical possibility. They
envisioned the people taking arms against the federal government if
it exceeded its delegated powers or invaded their rights, and they
admitted that this would be justified. Secession, including the resort
to arms, was the final remedy against tyranny. (This is the real point
of the Second Amendment.)
Strictly speaking, the states would not be “rebelling,” since
they were sovereign; in the Framers’ view, a tyrannical government
would be rebelling against the states and the people, who by defending
themselves would merely exercise the paramount political “principle
The Constitution itself is silent on the subject, but since secession
was an established right, it didn’t have to be reaffirmed. More
telling still, even the bitterest opponents of the Constitution never
accused it of denying the right of secession. Three states ratified
the Constitution with the provision that they could later secede if
they chose; the other ten states accepted this condition as valid.
Early in the nineteenth century, some Northerners favored secession
to spare their states the ignominy of union with the slave states.
Later, others who wanted to remain in the Union recognized the right
of the South to secede; Abraham Lincoln had many of them arrested as “traitors.” According
to his ideology, an entire state could be guilty of “treason” and “rebellion.” The
Constitution recognizes no such possibility.
Long before he ran for president, Lincoln himself had twice affirmed
the right of secession and even armed revolution. His scruples changed
when he came to power. Only a few weeks after taking office, he wrote
an order for the arrest of Chief Justice Roger Taney, who had attacked
his unconstitutional suspension of habeas corpus. His most recent biographer
has said that during Lincoln’s administration there were “greater
infringements on individual liberties than in any other period in American
As a practical matter, the Civil War established the supremacy of
the federal government over the formerly sovereign states. The states
lost any power of resisting the federal government’s usurpations,
and the long decline toward a totally consolidated central government
By 1973, the federal government was so powerful that the U.S. Supreme
Court could insult the Constitution by striking down the abortion laws
of all 50 states; and there was nothing the states, long since robbed
of the right to secede, could do about it. That outrage was made possible
by Lincoln’s triumphant war against the states, which was really
his dark victory over the Constitution he was sworn to preserve.
Copyright © 2011 by the Fitzgerald
Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This column was published originally
by Griffin Internet Syndicate on September 30, 1999.
Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio
and archives of some of his columns.
Watch Sobran's last TV appearance on YouTube.
Learn how to get a tape of his last speech
during the FGF Tribute to Joe Sobran in December 2009.
To subscribe to or renew the FGF E-Package, or support the writings of Joe
Sobran, please send a tax-deductible donation to the:
Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation
P.O. Box 1383
or subscribe online.